Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club
The Golden Compass (1995)
Philip Pullman -The Golden Compass
The young girl Lyra lives and plays among the scholars at Jordan College in an alternate world version of Oxford England. Her constant companion is her shape shifting daemon, Pantalaimon, a talking animal familiar. One day, from hiding, she sees Lord Asriel's presentation about his Arctic mission. Lyra learns of a city in the northern lights, and of Dust, not ordinary dust, but a magical particle with unique properties.
Children are mysteriously disappearing, taken by the Gobblers. Lyra's friend Roger becomes one of the missing. The glamorous Mrs. Coulter, who has a golden monkey daemon, volunteers to look after Lyra.
The Master of Jordan College gives Lyra an alethiometer, an instrument that can tell the truth. But how to place the instrument's hands around the dial and read the thirty six symbols Lyra has to learn for herself.
Lyra discovers more about Mrs. Coulter's Oblation Board, which is experimenting with daemons. Then Lyra becomes entangled in dangerous adventures that lead to the far North - to Bolvangar and to Svalbard. Along the way Lyra befriends gyptians looking for their missing children, witches that fly on cloud pine branches, a balloonist from Texas, and an armored polar bear.summary written by
Northern Lights (1995)
His Dark Materials Book One (USA title The Golden Compass)
From the back cover of UK paperback Northern Lights:
When Lyra's friend Roger disappears, she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him. The ensuing quest leads them to the bleak splendor of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies - and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments too horrible to be spoken about.
Lyra overcomes these strange terrors, only to find something yet more perilous waiting her - something with consequences which may even reach beyond the Northern Lights...
Point paperback edition - 399 pages (right)
Lyra Belacqua (or Silvertongue) - feisty 11 year old blond-haired girl
Pantalaimon (Pan) - Lyra's shape shifting daemon
Lord Asriel - an arrogant relative of Lyra's, studies Dust (snow leopard daemon)
The Master of Jordan College, an old man (raven daemon)
Roger Parslow - Lyra's friend, kitchen boy from Jordan college (daemon Salcilia)
Mrs. Coulter (Marisa) - an elegant dark haired Lady (golden monkey daemon)
Ma Costa - a gyptian matron, stout gray haired woman
John Faa - Lord of the western gyptians
Farder Coram - a wise old gyptian man, years ago saved Serafina Pekkala's life
Iorek Byrnison - a pasnserbjørne, an armored polar bear, Lyra's friend
Serafina Pekkala - a Lapland witch, queen of a witch clan (daemon Kaisa, a snow goose)
Lee Scoresby - hired Texan aeronaut or balloonist (daemon Hester, a hare)
Tony Makarios - child taken by the Gobblers, later a severed child (daemon Ratter)
Lizzie Brooks - false name used by Lyra at Bolvanger
Iofur Raknison - the usurper King of Svalbard, an unbearlike bear
Places, things, and creatures:
Oxford and Jordan College
The alethiometer - the "golden compass", symbol reader, tells you the truth
Dust - elementary particle, attracted especially to adults, Rusakov particles
General Oblation Board - organization set up by Mrs. Coulter, the Gobblers
Magisterium - Group of Church councils meeting in Geneva
clockwork spy-fly - buzzing thing captured in a soldered tin
Trollesund - main port of Lapland
Bolvangar - the Experimental Station in the North, "the fields of evil"
Cliff-ghasts - foul smelling, leather winged creatures
Svalbard - island in the North ruled by the bears, where Lord Asriel is imprisoned
10 Wow! Don't miss it
8-9 Highly recommended
5-6 Mild recommendation
3-4 Take your chances
1-2 Below average; skip it
0 Get out the flamethrower!
U Unfinishable or unreadable
- Skipped or no rating given
Philip Pullman - The Golden Compass
At its foundation, this book is a fun adventure story. The adventure follows Lyra, a spunky young woman who travels to the ends of the earth hoping to free a group of captive children, including her best friend. Pullman covers a lot of territory effectively and introduces a host of interesting side characters, especially the strong-willed gyptians and the somber polar bear Iorek Byrnison. The adventure story works largely because Lyra is a terrific protagonist for a young adult novel. She suffers all the confusion and uncertainty of a typical adolescent, yet repeatedly manages to escape danger and help her friends through cleverness and sheer determination (both of which she has in greater supply than Harry Potter, I must say). I feared things would turn maudlin when Lyra’s parents were discovered to be important and powerful people, but Pullman avoids this by making her parents remarkably unlikable. There is plenty in this book to entertain readers young and old.
But as fun as the story is, the novel transcends its adventure underpinnings, for at least two reasons. First, it is infused with great fantastic imagery. When I found myself fully absorbed in a wonderfully surreal scene depicting a squadron of armored polar bears launching flame at a zeppelin, while the zeppelin fires back with machine guns and flying witches pepper the bears with arrows, I realized I was reading something truly unique and memorable.
Second, the device of the daemons, animal-shaped companions to all human beings in Pullman’s universe, is brilliant. The daemon concept is marvelously conceived and carried out. Pullman brings his readers to believe in daemons as an integral part of his characters’ lives, to the point that we are actually shocked when we learn that the villains have been separating children from their daemons. (What? A child left with no daemon? How horrible! Wait a minute…) The daemons allow Pullman to take internal thoughts and struggles and show them in external, literal terms. Where other books might tell you that an adult compels a youth to obey through strength of will, Pullman actually shows the adult’s daemon overpowering the child’s. Instead of telling us that Lyra had to force herself to overcome her fears in order to talk to the intimidating Iorek Byrnison, Pullman shows us her daemon literally pulling her forward. The daemons are also central to Pullman’s metaphorical points, allowing him to grapple with issues regarding the soul and religion in a way that can fascinate sophisticated readers without distracting his younger readers.
One mistake Pullman made was not showing us more of Lyra’s friend Roger in the early passages in Oxford. If we had gotten to know him better, the later sections of the book when he is in grave danger would have had more impact. But this is only a minor quibble with an outstanding effort by Philip Pullman.What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to
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Paperback cover artwork by Eric Peterson (left)